Thursday, January 7, 2016

What is a Learning Disability?

I was recently asked this question and, after 20+ years in the field I found myself mumbling and struggling to give a coherent answer. So I went to do a little research and this is what I gathered:

The term “Learning Disability (LD)” was coined by Dr. Samuel Kirk in 1962. It is often referred as “hidden handicap” because there is no outward appearance of disability.

Interestingly, there is not a widely definition of “learning disability.” There is ongoing debate on the issue. Different definitions seem to agree on the following:

-        The learning disabled have difficulties with academic achievement.
-        The learning disabled show an uneven pattern of development.
-        Learning problems are not always due to environmental disadvantages.
-        Learning problems are not always due to mental retardation or emotional disturbance.

We can agree that the learning disabled child is one who is not functioning in school at average levels.

Little is currently known about the causes of LD. However, some general observations can be made:

-        Some children develop at a slower rate than others (maturational lag).
-        Some children with normal vision and hearing may misinterpret sights and sounds because of unexplained disorders of the nervous system.
-        Injuries before birth or in early childhood may account for some later learning problems.
-        Children born prematurely and those who had medical problems soon after birth sometimes present with learning disabilities.
-        Some learning disabilities may be inherited.
Early signs of LD:
Children with learning disabilities exhibit a wide range of symptoms including problems with reading, mathematics, comprehension, writing, etc. Hyperactivity and attention deficits are common within this population. 

When considering these symptoms it is important to be aware of the following:

·        No one will have all these symptoms.
·        All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.

LD children experience frustration, anxiety and tension. It is important to note that it is not their fault. These children are not just behaviorally challenging. So we need to be understanding and often make accommodations for them, such as teaching at a slower pace, taking them aside and work with them on a one-on-one basis, using special materials, such as visual schedules and reminders. Failure to do so may lead to lack of participation in the classroom (the child gives up before even trying), and behavioral problems such as non-compliance, acting out, eloping, and even aggression. Often, LD students get into trouble and do not know what they did wrong.

As a parent, if you suspect that your child has a learning disability you should:
1.      Take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical examination.
2.      Contact the school and arrange for testing and evaluations. Federal law requires that public school districts provide special education and services to children who need them.
3.      Be informed about your rights and services available in the community.

What can parents do at home to foster success?
·        Rules and limits should be clearly outlined and implemented consistently.
·        All members of the family should help create a supportive environment.
·        Foster a non-competitive atmosphere.
·        Praise and reward positive behavior and focus on direction instead of perfection.
·        Make tasks short.
·        Prepare your child for unexpected changes in routines and new situations.
·        Prepare new situations for your child: lengths of time, environments, special accommodations, etc.

Remember that your child is more normal than different. Emphasize his strengths and abilities. And never forget that the LD child needs what all children need: love, acceptance, protection, discipline, and the freedom to grow and learn his way.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

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